Mixed martial arts promoters flex Hill muscle

Cash, lobbyists put smackdown on statehouses

As the sport of mixed martial arts has fought for the respect and market share enjoyed by the nation’s more established professional pastimes, the industry’s biggest player has found that money talks in the halls of Congress and in statehouses across the country.

Zuffa, the Las Vegas-based parent company of Ultimate Fighting Championship and World Extreme Cagefighting, has opened its corporate wallet to protect its interests on Capitol Hill and to legalize, legitimize and sanction mixed martial arts, known to its rabid fans as MMA, in state after state, shelling out more than $1 million to political parties, lobbyists and powerful politicians, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Nevada Democrat.

The investment has paid off handsomely.

When Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta III, co-owners of Station Casinos in Las Vegas, purchased the fledgling UFC for $2 million in 2001, MMA was banned in most states and had been branded by Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, as “human cockfighting.” Since then, the Fertitta brothers pumped more than $40 million into the UFC and, with the help of colorful company President Dana White, worked to clean up MMA’s image, improve fighter safety and make the sport more appealing to the general public and politicians alike.

Along the way, they spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a D.C.-based lobbyist, and splashed cash in federal and state campaigns in Nevada, Illinois and anywhere else they hoped to gain a foothold.

Today, they have several powerful allies in Congress, 44 states sanction MMA events - whereas, just a dozen years ago, 36 states outright banned the sport outright - and Mr. White has put the value of the company at $2.5 billion.

The Fertitta brothers also have a successful reality-TV show, “The Ultimate Fighter,” on the Spike cable channel and a popular “UFC Undisputed” video game.

“I think on the business side, the first thing it takes to be a major sports player is fans, and the fan base they have had has been incredible and helpful to their cause,” said Makan Delrahim, a Zuffa lobbyist on Capitol Hill. State efforts to restrict MMA “are not major hills to climb because the fan support for the sport is so huge.”

Zuffa has significantly increased its political contributions and lobbying efforts in the last four years.

Since 2008, Zuffa has paid Mr. Delrahim’s employer, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, $720,000 to keep an eye on issues of concern in Congress. In particular, Zuffa’s owners have pushed for a crackdown on online piracy of the UFC’s pay-per-view events, which usually cost about $50.

Mr. Delrahim said the UFC does not enjoy the lucrative multimillion-dollar television contracts that networks have with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Football League. Much of UFC’s revenues come from pay-per-view events.

Sitting on a panel with executives from Major League Baseball’s Internet media company and sports cable giant ESPN, Lorenzo Fertitta in December told the House Judiciary Committee that the UFC is potentially “losing out on tens of millions of dollars a year from piracy.”

UFC’s success “was threatened by the theft in retransmission of our live pay-per-view events,” which account for nearly half of its revenues, he told lawmakers.

Getting Washington to listen to the upstart sport’s problems “takes some resources,” Mr. Delrahim said.

UFC and its owners “don’t have the history that an NFL does or an NBA does or the types of political network that some of the NFL owners have had, like [Dallas Cowboys’ owner Jerry] Jones, for example, or [Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Herb] Kohl, who is an NBA owner. But they understand that there are some things that the political process and only the political process can help.”

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